The Travelin’ Man returns to Omaha: part one
Friday, Oct. 23: Less than three weeks after working the card topped by Adrien Broner’s 12th-round TKO of Khabib Allakhverdiev in Cincinnati, this “Travelin’ Man” was ready to return to the road (and the air) and be at ringside in Omaha to witness Terence Crawford’s first WBO junior welterweight title defense against Canadian Dierry Jean.
For the first four decades of my life I drew two associations from Omaha: First, the Sunday night series “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” which originally aired on NBC from 1963 to 1971 and was shown in reruns through 1988. There, zoologist Marlon Perkins narrated segments involving assistant Jim Fowler and a myriad of exotic creatures, some of which created rather dicey – and occasionally life-threatening – situations. Those sequences were particularly nerve-wracking for me to watch because my younger self didn’t realize the network would have never aired the footage had Fowler been maimed or killed. Such is the innocence – and the lack of context – of childhood.
The second association is, of course, boxing-related: Joe Frazier’s heavyweight championship defense against Ron Stander May 25, 1972, at the Civic Auditorium, which “Smokin’ Joe” won via brutal fourth-round TKO. Stander – who was born at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, but lived in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa – was called the “Bluffs Butcher” thanks to a previous occupation and in the days leading up to the bout the 10-to-1 underdog with the 23-1-1 (15) record was confidence personified.
“Everybody thinks I’m just a country boy,” the 10th-ranked Stander said in a UPI story that covered the fight’s announcement. “But I’ll show the world that a big tough guy from the sticks knows how to fight and knows how to win. I’m not a pop-off guy; I say what I mean. Frazier accepted my challenge for a title fight, but he made a big mistake. I’m going to win by a knockout.”
Stander’s bravado was so robust that he looked past Frazier and addressed the man he wanted to meet in his first title defense.
“Not only will Frazier be the loser, so will that big-mouth Muhammad Ali,” he said. “He’ll never get Frazier in the ring again after I do my thing.” As he said this his face sported a shiner administered by Johnny Mac, who Stander out-pointed over 10 rounds three days earlier. That wound begged this question: If Mac could inflict such damage on Stander, what would future Hall of Famers Frazier and Ali do? The world was about to find out.
The fight generated considerable excitement in the area and Stander soaked it all in. Three days before the bout more than 2,000 attended a pep rally staged by the city of Council Bluffs. The enthusiasm was such that one local boxing figure feared for Stander’s safety.
“I’ve been promoting 51 years and I’ve seen a lot of things in the fight game, but I’ve never seen nothing like this,” said Des Moines-based promoter Pinky George, who had no link with the Frazier-Stander promotion. The Pittsburgh Press report said mayor Joseph Katelman’s introduction of Stander as “the next champion of the world” drew such a prolonged roar that the fighter had to wait for an unusually long time before addressing the crowd.
“I want to thank you all for coming out and being behind me,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to bring the heavyweight championship back to Council Bluffs.” The crush of humanity at the end of the ceremony was so severe that Stander was trapped for several minutes before finally breaking away and running toward his car, which the reporter noted was parked at the rear of a funeral home – just a few feet away from a hearse.
Thankfully that vehicle wasn’t pressed into service but Frazier did administer a beating only a butcher could appreciate. Two rifle-shot hooks in round one drew blood from Stander’s nose and from there matters only worsened for the challenger. Frazier’s unrelenting stream of power shots opened four separate cuts that would require 32 more stitches on a face that had taken a reported 60 from previous fights. Those gashes prompted ringside physician Dr. Jack Lewis to stop the fight between rounds four and five, a development that drove the bitterly disappointed Stander to tears.
While Stander didn’t make good on his vow to bring the belt to his people he showed he had limitless courage and a genuine fighting spirit, assets that thrilled the fans that packed the arena and earned even more respect from the winner and still heavyweight champion, who was ever-mindful of getting “clipped” by the rugged underdog.
“He didn’t back up once,” Frazier said. “He’s a good puncher, a good fighter. He didn’t slacken at all. I was trying to get a real solid shot. He was getting tired but he wasn’t getting any weaker.”
“I just tried my best,” Stander said with atypical understatement. “But Joe cut me up. He’s the greatest. Clay doesn’t have a chance against him.”
The emergence of Terence Crawford as a pound-for-pound force – and “Bud’s” willingness to sacrifice money for geography – has breathed new life into the Omaha boxing scene. Thanks to a series of victories aired by HBO, the network’s personnel eventually trekked to Nebraska to air his WBO lightweight title bouts with Yuriorkis Gamboa and Raymundo Beltran, which, in turn, allowed me to work the keys for the Beltran bout. During that visit last November I created more personal memories of Omaha. Some were unpleasant (waiting 30 minutes for the hotel shuttle to arrive, banging my left knee on the front seat when the shuttle driver braked hard after nearly running a red light, braving frigid gusts while walking back to the hotel after the fights and experiencing considerable trouble printing out my home-bound boarding passes) but most of them were terrific. That includes going to the Blatt Beer and Table restaurant and consuming the single best hamburger I’ve ever tasted (the Blatt Burger), starting across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in Nebraska and ending in Iowa, and, best of all, watching Crawford ply his trade.
What makes Crawford special as a fighter is his versatility. Not only does he switch-hit with unusual fluidity, he assumes different fistic personas based on his stance. When he’s fighting southpaw he is a thinking-man’s fighter who picks at opponents with such effectiveness that thought-shadows of Pernell Whitaker emerge but when he’s righty he throttles up the power and aggression. So far, that package has yet to be bested but Jean promised to bring his own blend of speed and power to the table.
But before I would get to witness the drama inside the ring, I needed to get there. Because, as the lead operator, I needed to be inside the CenturyLink Center Arena by mid-afternoon to conduct the usual pre-fight electronic checks, I had to pick a route that went through ORD, a.k.a. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which, along with Philadelphia and the New York City airports, is known for its congestion and propensity for delays. All I could do in that circumstance is hope for the best but expect something less than that.
I awoke at 5:30 a.m. and dozed for nearly another hour before I arose and got ready for the day. Except the “day” had not yet arrived, for sunrise wouldn’t occur for another hour. For me, rising before dawn brought back memories of my school days when my friends and I stood inside a small rickety structure at the bottom of the driveway waiting for the school bus to pick us up. The shack offered relatively little relief from the elements but on most days the bus itself was comfortable. The difference between then and now is that here I was going to place I wanted to be.
Speaking of school buses, I had planned to leave for the airport at 7:30 a.m. but then I remembered that was when the bus was going to pass through my neighborhood. I don’t know about your neck of the woods but on Friendly Hill getting stuck behind a school bus is a fate no motorist wants to endure. That’s because the bus that services our area stops seemingly every 100 feet to pick up a new batch of kids, making the usually two-minute trip down the hill toward Route 2 at least five times longer. By the time the bus gets to Route 2, a long line of cars operated by frustrated drivers is trailing behind. So, to avoid that aggravation, I left the house at 7:08, with nary a bus – or even another vehicle – in sight.
The skies were overcast and the temperature was in the low 50s, but as I headed north the clouds disappeared and were replaced by sunshine. I made good time and arrived at the airport shortly before 9:30 a.m. As usual, I circled the extended parking lot and found a spot 11 spaces beyond the “13D” sign – not bad, but not great either.
Another benefit of leaving the house slightly earlier than scheduled was that it gave me time to address an issue prompted by American Airlines’ website. A glitch in the program prevented me from printing my boarding pass for the Chicago-to-Omaha leg and when I called the airline they suggested I visit the check-in counter. Although the agent who handled the issue told me I was his first customer as an American Airlines employee – he had been a longtime worker for US Airways, which merged with American last year – he was able to resolve my issue without much problem.
With boarding passes in hand I sailed through the TSA Pre-Check line, rode the tram to the terminal and walked to Gate B37, where I prepared to write the first few words of this article. But before I could gather my thoughts a young man immediately sat beside me and proceeded to vent about some issues relating to his work. A lot of people would have brushed him off or treated him rudely but, having been in his position countless times during my 17 years on the copydesk of the Parkersburg News, I opted to hear him out with a sympathetic ear.
I learned several things about him: He was a 21-year-old welder with an electrical company who also was the father of two youngsters – children he said he had not seen in three years due to his job – but was on his way to Tampa (through Chicago) to visit them. He told me through his broken English that he was from Puerto Rico and that one of his bosses’ objections with him was that he spoke Spanish on the job when he was with fellow speakers. He had so much anger in him that he needed someone – anyone – to hear him out. I gladly accepted the assignment.
Actually, I saw this as an opportunity to practice some of my rudimentary Spanish, which I hadn’t had a chance to use since my trip to Argentina in April 2013. Our attempts at bilingualism – along with a translation app on his phone – allowed the conversation to flow better and over time he calmed down and assumed a much friendlier demeanor.
Our talk was interrupted by one of the gate agents, who spotted the young man’s giant-sized bag. Normally, such a bag would have been immediately checked and he would have incurred a fee but since the airline made an error the employee gave him a red tag, asked him to leave it on the jetway when he entered the plane and instructed him to pick it up there when we exited the aircraft in Chicago.
Since he had issues understanding the instructions over the public-address system, I remained with him even after my boarding group had been called. When the agent began mentioning individual groups over the loudspeaker I told him to listen for the words “group four,” then, only after he told me he understood, I left to board the plane.
Space was unusually tight within this regional jet; the seats were cramped and the aisle space was just wide enough to get the beverage cart through. Still, I contented myself by reading the first 60 pages of John Feinstein’s “Tales From Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major” and purchasing a small can of Pringles to quiet my grumbling stomach. Except for a mild reverberation halfway through the flight it was smooth as glass. The landing was soft enough but after hitting the runway the plane suddenly veered hard to the left. It was as if the pilot were a motorist who had just avoided missing an exit on the interstate.
“Good thing we had our seat belts on,” someone behind me said. Good thing indeed.
Once I exited the jet way and looked at the monitor I received good and bad news. The good: My connecting gate was closer than the one announced during our flight, and, given my 27-minute connection window between landing and boarding, that was a positive development. The bad: As expected, the scheduled 1:30 p.m. departure was pushed back to 2 p.m., then to 2:17, then eventually to 2:45. That meant I would miss my scheduled 3 p.m. call time at the arena, so I called Sports Media’s Dustin Vinton to let him know what was going on. Dustin said my involuntary tardiness wouldn’t be a big issue because work at the ringside area was still being done.
While I handled that symbolic headache, I developed a real one – and this one was painful. I dug through my laptop bag in the belief I had some Advil stashed away but I came up empty. So I walked toward a small book store and purchased a three-pack for $4.49 plus tax. Heck, in my condition, I would have paid $20 for it. Drawing on past experience, I asked the clerk if he had scissors to open the packaging. Not only did he have them he used them to open it for me.
What a great guy.
Within 15 minutes the pounding inside my head began to subside and within 15 more it was gone – for now.
I spent most of the Chicago-to-Omaha flight resting my eyes, which were burning with fatigue. My seat-mate had a similar idea, except that he fell completely asleep. How did I know? Because from time to time his upper body wavered, then came to rest against my right shoulder.
I suppose I could have used my elbow to nudge him off me, but that wasn’t necessary because each incident lasted less than a minute. He was fully awake by the time we approached the airport and neither of us said a word as we prepared to deplane. Some things are better left unsaid.
In order to get to the arena as quickly as I could for the electronic checks I took a cab to the Hilton Omaha instead of calling for the hotel shuttle. I checked into my room, plopped my clothes bag on one of the chairs and left the room with my laptop bag in wheeling mode. Instead of walking across the street to the CenturyLink Center Arena I took the enclosed skybridge to avoid traffic, after which I took the elevator down to the ground floor.
The first person I recognized inside the venue was Dustin. Because my work space at ringside wasn’t ready yet, we tested our equipment inside the production truck. Within five minutes all was well and I returned to the hotel.
I spent most of the evening doing what a self-respecting boxing junkie would do – I watched the Fight Night Club stream on RingTV.com from beginning to end. The three bouts that also were televised on Estrella TV provided extreme contrasts. Frankie Gomez was returning from a nearly 15-month layoff thanks to weight-making issues – issues that canceled his scheduled May match with Humberto Soto – and while they surfaced again in the run-up before his 10-round shutout over Jorge Silva (he scaled three pounds over the contracted 147) his work inside the ring showed why he initially created excitement. His pressure and work rate escalated throughout and it culminated with a 132-punch outburst in the 10th.
Meanwhile, onetime college basketball player and 29-year-old novice heavyweight Paul Ritter (now 1-1) showed off his heavy fists with a pair of second-round knockdowns against the debuting Relanzo Richard but also proved he has a long way to go in terms of technique in registering a four-round unanimous decision. More often than not the Lithuanian smothered his work while pursuing the knockout and his serial use of the forearms prompted a point deduction. At times the action was hard to watch but one also sensed genuine effort was being expended.
Ritter’s crudeness also served to further highlight the quality of Joseph Diaz Jr.’s work in registering a dominant decision over willing journeyman Ruben Tamayo. The rugged Mexican was coming off a decision loss against another Olympian in Oscar Valdez and just as he did then he pushed Diaz to produce an excellent effort in terms of volume, accuracy and technique. It appears, however, that as Diaz moves up the ladder the explosive knockouts that marked his learning period will be fewer and further between. The good news is that Diaz makes longer fights fun to watch and easy to appreciate.
When the broadcast ended around 11:15 p.m. CDT, I ordered my first real meal of the day from room service – a Steakhouse Burger cooked medium well with cheese and mushroom, a side of French fries and a Diet Coke. Not the most nutritious meal, I admit, but certainly filling as well as satisfying.
An hour later, this long and demanding day came to a close.
Saturday, Oct. 24: My eyes snapped open a little more than five hours later and, as I did the previous morning, I spent some extra time in half-awake/half-sleeping mode. While one side rested the other planned out the day.
After the usual morning routines I assembled and e-mailed the judges’ information for HBO, then spent the next several hours writing the article you’re reading now. In between I took the elevator downstairs to the lobby to print out my return boarding pass. As was the case last year, the printer acted up. A helpful hotel employee tried to fix the problem and when he was unsuccessful he suggested I try to print the passes from another computer. Unfortunately, the American Airlines website refused to access the page with the passes, saying that I needed to check in at the airport. Hmph.
When I reached another good stopping point in the writing I noticed the early-morning overcast skies had given way to sun, which would make my return trip to the Blatt Beer and Table a more pleasant one. While this burger was good there is only one best, and after cleaning my plate and paying the bill I did my best to walk off the heavy meal by returning to the pedestrian bridge. By now the sky was a brilliant blue and the wind was a welcome addition to the 60-degree temperature. Just in case this would be my final trip to Omaha, I made sure to walk a bit more slowly and take mental pictures of my surroundings. At several points I stopped and looked down at the Missouri River and I made sure to pause during both times I reached the Nebraska-Iowa state line, which, looking down from the Nebraska side, slants downward.
I returned to the hotel around 2:15 p.m. and after getting some more writing done I took a catnap. Feeling somewhat refreshed I packed my laptops, took the elevator down to the lobby and met punch-counting partner Dennis Allen at 3:45. We chose to walk across the street and within minutes we were at our work station, which seemed unusually cramped. A subsequent check with an HBO employee revealed that someone inside the arena had placed two extra chairs than had been assigned for our area. Once they were removed, I had more than enough space to do my job.
This HBO triple-header was unusual in that only one of the fights was live. So while most of the network’s audience saw replays of last week’s Roman Gonzalez-Brian Viloria/Gennady Golovkin-David Lemieux bouts, those of us inside the CenturyLink saw a seven-fight undercard that included Evgeny Gradovich’s eight-round split decision over Aldimar Silva Santos, Mikael Zewski’s fifth-round TKO over Ayi Bruce and Andy Ruiz’s dominant eight-round decision over Raphael Zumbano Love.
Of those bouts, Ruiz’s performance generated the loudest and most consistent reaction. Ruiz had long been criticized for his un-athletic physique but even at his heaviest (297 ¾ in his pro debut in March 2009) he possessed above-average hand speed and surprising nimbleness. Since emerging from a 10-month layoff last month it was clear that Ruiz had worked hard to shed some of the excess weight as he scaled 247 ¾ against Joell Godfrey and 248 ¾ against Love, well below the 267 ¾ he scaled in out-pointing onetime WBO titlist Sergei Liakhovich in December 2014.
Granted, Zumbano-Love was an appropriate canvas for Ruiz to display his skills, for he had lost eight of his last 14 and three of his four career KO losses had taken place in his last six fights. But the 6-foot-4 Brazilian was durable and he was eager to keep fighting even when absorbing a frightful beating. Against future title challenger Eric Molina in January, Zumbano managed to last the distance despite soaking up 76 percent of his opponent’s power shots, including 81 percent in round one and 90 percent in the eighth.
He appeared to take a similar percentage against Ruiz, whose quick hands and stamina inspired surprise and admiration from those sitting around me. Having watched Ruiz plenty of times on TV over the past few years I knew he had the raw material inside him and now that he’s making a concerted effort to address his weight I look for even better performances in the future against a higher quality of opponent.
During our down time at ringside I chatted with Dennis, Max Kellerman and Harold Lederman among others, after which I prepared for the main event, whose significance was further raised when Top Rank’s Bob Arm announced that Crawford was in the running to be Manny Pacquiao’s final opponent in April. With that piece of news thrown into the mix, the fight that had already become an event now was an audition. Not only did Crawford have to win, he had to do so impressively enough to convince Arum, who was sitting at ringside, that he could be an appropriate “party of the second part” for a pay-per-view.
Could Crawford rise to the occasion? The 11,020 people inside the CenturyLink certainly hoped he could.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.